Why We Left That Stupid Planet in the First Place

Volume 2

The Shifters

Or

The Penguin, The Potted Plant and QC-713

My next stop on my fact-finding mission was an unnamed planet approximately 23 light years from The Great Society. It wasn't nearly far enough but it would have to do.

I met with the Outside World Ambassador, Ms. Kendall Crenshaw. Once the greeting and pleasantries had finished, Kendall warned me that I might be disturbed by what I saw.

I said I'd seen my fair share of the bizarre.

My hostess suggested we discuss her planet over a nice brunch, and having traveled 23 light years, I was more than happy to comply.

The restaurant was modest in appearance, seeming like an old Earth diner. The image, regretfully, did not last.

We were led to our seats, next to a window overlooking the city (the diner was apparently on the edge of a canyon, inside which lay the city) by a perky, young, blonde waitress who eerily resembled my Great Society tour guide.

I had previously thought that the restaurant had been empty but upon hearing the voices of customers, I realized it had just opened.

I began talking with Kendall about the history of the planet, becoming so engrossed in the conversation about its past as a research and development complex that I only barely noticed a girl of about eleven walk by with a giant plush bear (much like one you would win at a county fair) on her back. She stuffed the bear onto one booth and sat across from it.

The blonde waitress came back and asked the girl if she was ready to order.

It was only a few moments afterward when things began getting weird.

The girl then looked at the plush bear and said, quote:

"Mommy, can I have large hot chocolate this time?"

"Yes, of course, dear," the bear replied, in the voice of a middle-aged British woman. "I believe I'll just have a small coffee."

I will warn you now, readers: no matter how much warning you receive, no matter the number of broad indicators you encounter, nothing, and I mean nothing, can properly prepare you for something like that.

"So now you understand what I meant earlier?" Kendall asked.

"Would you care to explain?"

"About two centuries back, a man named Anthonyu Horwitz worked on a machine called QC-713. QC stood for 'quick change.' It would allow anyone to instantly transform into anything they wanted. Secret agents could change bodies to cover their tracks, zoologists could become their subjects to better understand them; it was amazing."

"But…" I said, knowing there had to have been a catch.

"But when the 'clients' had children, those children lost the ability to control the changes. They would randomly shift into almost any form. Sure, we go back to normal every so often but nine out of ten days we're… anything. Nobody here can say with any certainty what they'll wake up as the next morning. Luckily, our scientists invented a chip that allows us to telepathically communicate with each other no matter what we happen to be at the time.

Her point was emphasized by a five-foot penguin walking by, holding a potted plant. The penguin put the plant down carefully on a table and removed the chairs.

"Oh, hello, Annie!" said Kendall. She motioned to me.

"Reporter L-62, meet Melissa and Arnie Miller. Melissa's the penguin; Arnie's the ficus."

"Hi," I said. I stuck my hand out to shake, then reconsidered.

"When he's not shrubbery, Arnie's working on replicating the control aspect of the shifts."

I looked down at my salad and no longer felt hungry.

Kendall returned to the table a few minutes later, allowing me time to take notes and snap a couple of mini-pics, and finish my drink (the only thing I felt safe ingesting).

"So, do you want to see QC-713? It's in our lab," she asked, oblivious to my culinary quandary.

I looked around. People, animals and objects, both stationary and mobile, were coming and going, one waitress was floating haphazardly around the room, though I did give her credit for not letting her transformation into a balloon person stop her from doing her job. It was the very definition of controlled chaos.

I said yes to Kendall mostly so my brain would have time to recuperate before being exposed to whatever absurdity was next.

The laboratory itself seemed fairly normal. Sure, we walked past a unicorn talking to a model airplane at one point but it wasn't… everywhere.

"So, L-62... Where have I heard that before?"

"I wrote Where Everyone Can Go to Get Away From You and What to Do if Your Sun Goes Supernova," I said, mentioning my two previous bestsellers.

"And you're working on…"

"Why We Left that Stupid Planet in the First Place."

"You're saying we're stupid?"

"No, no, no, no. Earth. I go to bizarre or obscure planets to say, 'this stuff on its own is weird. If it were all on one planet like it was, we'd all be dead."

"You're lying."

"Yep."

"You think we're stupid."

"I think you're weird, possibly insane. Stupid, no," I said as we reached the main dome.

QC-713 is a human-sized, greenish, globular mass floating in a coffin-shaped metal box. I could see it from the landing we were walking on. I took several pictures as we went down to the staging area.

"How many people actually got into that?"

"About one hundred thirty-seven."

"About one hundred thirty-seven?"

"One or two lab techs may have gone joy-riding early in development and some people have bribed their way in. Checking the grass on the other side of the fence, mostly."

"You mean?"

"Swapping genders with their spouses for… romantic purposes."

"Some people have no morals."

"We put a fail safe in recently. Now you try that, it's permanent."

A woman wearing a wedding dress and taking notes walked past us.

"Ah, L-62, I'd like you to meet project lead Dr. Anita Carville."

"Good morning; it's an honor, Dr. Carville," I said to the woman.

"No, non, this," Kendall said, patting the dress, "is Dr. Carville. This is her girlfriend, Melanie."

"This is an awkward situation," I said nervously.

"It's all right," Melanie said. "I'll just repeat what she tells me. The dress thing, according to Anita, may be a physical… representation of subconscious worries, anxieties or… concerns… the changes in physical form may be reversible with the proper application of willpower. We've just gotten engaged and she's stressing, thus the frills," Melanie said. "Normally, I stay and home and clean house, but when Anita can't drive herself, I take her."

"Her subconscious has good taste," Kendall said jokingly. "A dress like her costs a fortune."

"Funny. So, L-62, you wanna see it in action?"

"As long as I'm just watching."

"The glob of goo was the reformatted, I learned. A jolt of electromagnetism here or there kept it contained in the center of the coffin-thing instead of clinging to the sides and trying to reformat the storage container. An outside computer controls the type of modification and jolts of EM control what gets modified. Very cool stuff."

The machine was the last stop for me, though, and I had to say goodbye here. As I took off, I waved, and Kendall waved back before suddenly turning into a piñata. And that's Why We Left that Stupid Planet in the First Place.